In a perfect world, entrepreneurial success would be down to factors such as a great idea, drive, talent and perhaps also a smidgeon of good luck. You might also – if you wanted to stretch a point – say that entrepreneurship represents something of an egalitarian ideal. Anyone – regardless of socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity or creed can start a business and make a go of it.
But we live in a world that is far from perfect and all entrepreneurs are certainly not created equal. Great ideas, drive and talent can be found just about everywhere across society but some of the less tangible factors that can accelerate or inhibit entrepreneurial success are less equally divided.
To take just a few examples. Would-be entrepreneurs from relatively affluent backgrounds often have access to a deep well of knowledge about what it means to start, run and grow a business. That may be because family members or friends have previously gone down the entrepreneurial road and can provide advice, mentorship and funding. Others are less lucky. For instance, here in the U.K., there is less of a generational tradition of entrepreneurship in some ethnic minority and also working-class communities. Thus, when the time comes to start a business, the all-important networks aren’t necessarily in place. That needn’t be the end of the road but it can be a genuine handicap. It’s a situation that also contributes to a lack of diversity in the tech industry.
It’s a problem that Dayo Akinrinade has set out to address.
As a Black woman working in the sector, Akinrinade says she struggled to find other Black women to provide not only role models but also mentorship. And her personal experience was underlined by the insight she gained when working within the industry. Having quit her job as a management consultant, she joined the board of One Tech, an organization dedicated to promoting diversity.
“My key observation was that minority founders suffer from a lack of mentoring,” she says.
And it’s not necessarily an easy issue to address. Almost by definition, background – initially at least – defines and limits the networks that are available, not only to entrepreneurs but also those who simply want to advance their careers. There are ways around it. Networking meetings may provide a means to make connections – although that presupposes a degree of knowledge and ability to gain access. Alternatively, as Akinrinade points out, aspirant entrepreneurs may try to build their contacts online.
People use platforms like Linkedin,” she says. “But Linkedin tends to help people connect with those they already know.”
Akinrinade’s solution was Wisdom, an audio app that provides its users – and it’s open to everyone – with access to industry experts.
Access to Experts
So what does that mean in practice? Well, Wisdom has assembled a range of experts, including business people, life coaches, mentors and therapists to commit to making themselves available to the wider user group.
That could mean a lot of very busy and overworked experts struggling to keep pace with a wave of queries, but the engagement process is tightly structured. There are two ways to get advice. Firstly a user can attend a talk and then table a question which will be answered on a one-to-one basis. The second way is to locate an expert and ask a specific question. The audio replies can then be posted on social media to build a body of knowledge.
So what does this achieve? “Wisdom is about connecting with people that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to meet,” says Akinrinade. People from different races, genders and social classes. It’s about breaking down barriers.”
But what do the experts get out of it in return for what sounds like a significant commitment? Akinrinade says that in some cases there is a desire to “pay it forward,” but there can be a commercial agenda too. Coaches, mentors, advisors and therapists are among those who can use the platform to build a following, raise their own profiles and book into new business.
And this is probably key to the monetisation of Wisdom. Akinrinade has raised $2 million to launch the platform but it is not as yet at the revenue-raising stage. Instead, the company is watching the interactions between users and experts to identify the best options for raising revenue. This is not yet decided, but one way forward is to allow the experts to book private paid private sessions with users within the platform and take a commission from that.
Is this really just a variation on the Clubhouse theme? Well, there are similarities, but perhaps the biggest difference is the open-to-all approach.
To date, the app, which is available for Apple and Android has clocked up 5.4 million listening minutes and in a slightly odd comparison, the company says users spend on average five times more minutes a day than they would on Tinder or Bumble.
But let’s step back a bit. As the tech ecosystem matures, how big is the problem of lack of mentorship and does that layer on the bigger issue of unconscious ( and perhaps conscious) biases that hold certain individuals and groups back?
Akinrinade has succeeded in raising £2 million from First Round Capital and a number of angels. But – and this is perhaps a big but – she has experience of being treated differently because of her ethnicity and possibly also gender. She cites the example of turning up at a pitch competition and being welcomed by a judge at the door who assumed that a group of Black people who had come in behind her were members of her family. “Something like that means you start on an awkward footing,” she says.
But the barriers are complex. Akinrinade gender, race, social class and other differences can not only create barriers individually but they also intersect to make it harder than it should be for entrepreneurs from outside the tech-industry mainstream to make progress. Addressing the diversity gap is, she says, still a work in progress. It’s a cause she is trying to advance through her work mentoring young people through The Accelerator Network, WCAN, BGR.LDN and the Wildhearts Group.
In the meantime, at the level of finding advice and building networks, Akinrinade hopes that Wisdom will help entrepreneurs access the help they need.